The Immense Pleasures of The Hills' Unromantic Reboot—and Reality TV Growing Up With You

The Immense Pleasures of The Hills' Unromantic Reboot—and Reality TV Growing Up With You

It’s five minutes into the premiere episode of The Hills: New Beginnings when Whitney Port declares, “I can’t even believe that I’m a mom—let alone, like, everybody else.” She’s flanked by fellow disbelieving moms Audrina Patridge and Heidi Pratt, and they all burst out laughing. Audrina even folds over at the hilarity of their surprising mom-ness. “I sometimes wake up and I’m like, ‘Oh my god, there’s a little child in the other room that I’m completely responsible for,” Whitney continues. After the laughter dies down, the trio swap photos and tales of their respective children, all under the age of 5, while sipping Champagne.

Then, Heidi admits that it was hard for her to even leave her son at home with her husband, Spencer Pratt, to come here tonight. “I just don’t feel comfortable, and I have severe anxiety, and I feel like it’s physically in my body,” she says. Her companions-slash-co-stars nod in sympathy. Then they turn to the subject of Audrina’s recent divorce, at which she chokes up. “You are amazing,” says Heidi. “You’re just beginning.” (Which is funnnny, because The Hills’ original, defining theme song featured the lyrics, “Today is where your book begins/The rest is still unwritten.”) Audrina replies, “That’s what I’ve had to realize, like, my life’s still not over. It’s just beginning again.”

It was at this point that I decided irrevocably that I loved The Hills reboot, which—if you want to get inappropriately existential about it, and I do—suggests that we’re always just beginning again. The show premiered in late June, some 13 years after the original hit MTV in the mid-2000s. The Hills followed a group of privileged, white twenty-somethings in Los Angeles as they pursued their careers—and, of course, love. Many of the original cast members are back for New Beginnings, save for the show’s most notable stars: Lauren Conrad and Kristen Cavallari. Most are married, in some cases unhappily. The d-word is mentioned a lot. Some of the show’s stars have kids and, hah, it turns out that is kind of hard, too.

This speaks to the odd pleasure of reality TV growing up with you, of seeing the “characters” you watched flail in their 20s… well, honestly, flail in their 30s.

While the reboot has gotten lackluster reviews, I adore it specifically, and crucially, as someone who dedicatedly watched the original show at the time that it aired. It is otherwise objectively bad television. This speaks to the odd pleasure of reality TV growing up with you, of seeing the “characters” you watched flail in their 20s… well, honestly, flail in their 30s. The satisfaction of this isn’t schadenfreude, but rather seeing pop culture reflect back your life phase (poolside villas, gleaming BMWs, and designer clothes aside) and feeling marginally culturally relevant again as an older millennial. It’s about the vicarious, bittersweet vindication of seeing how little the needlessly longed-after Peter Pans ever change. But most thrilling of all, it’s the busting of the myth that the flailing ever ends, that we can just write our own stories.

It is, with the regret of selling out my younger self, that I must admit: When I started watching MTV’s The Hills in 2006 as a 22-year-old, it felt like the Natasha Bedingfield lyrics in the theme song really got me, you know? Yes, there was the blank page of my life before me. Yes, my windows were fairly dirty. (How did she know?) But more important: “Reaching for something in the distance/So close you can almost taste it/Release your inhibitions/Feel the rain on your skin/No one else can feel it for you/Only you can let it in/No one else, no one else/Can speak the words on your lips.” Those lyrics, like much of The Hills itself, spoke equally to my wish to pair bond and mate with an acceptable human male, and my desire to feel the rain on my skin (read: build a career, sleep around, live a life) before pair bonding and mating with an acceptable human male.

At the time, this conflict felt both profound and pop-culturally mandated. One must understand, 2006 was the era of great “hookup culture” handwringing, with Laura Sessions Stepp warning that marriage-delaying, casual-sex-having youngsters—like myself, like the stars of The Hills—might end up incapable of love (because oxytocin or some shit). In fact, mid-way through The Hills’ four-year run, Lorri Gottlieb, as a single woman with a child conceived via donor sperm, published her book-deal-landing Atlantic cover story telling young women to go after Mr. Good Enough so as not to end up like her. As she put it: “My advice is this: Settle!”

It was a time of unhumorous and blinkered anxiety about young, straight, white women’s prospects for commitment and procreation. Given that, The Hills was an aptly timed soap opera starring young, straight, white women navigating the competing interests of career ambition, fairytale romance, and sleeping around. Who would make it big? Who would end up together? It was essentially a show about the most privileged among us tearfully vying for the lie of “having it all” and “happily ever after.” I was deeply invested in the outcome, even though it often boiled down, on an episode-to-episode level, to such inconsequential considerations as whether generic L.A. stud Brody Jenner would end up with Lauren, the series’ wide-eyed protagonist, or Kristen, the delightful villainess.

It was insipid as hell, but I fundamentally believed in the holy drama of the stars’ pursuits, especially around love. Like anyone raised on reality TV, I trusted The Hills, certainly more than Sessions Stepp or Gottlieb, to offer a glimpse at some modicum of truth about what might happen to me as one of these worried-about young, straight, white women coming of age post-sexual revolution. The show, though, didn’t last long enough to deliver. Like most fairytales, it never showed the happily ever after. In fact, it couldn’t even decide on an ending, instead broadcasting two different final scenes. In both, Kristen decides to leave to Europe. Suitcase beside her, she tearfully says goodbye to on-again-off-again ex-boyfriend Brody, who—ONLY NOW, IN THIS BAGS-PACKED, FLIGHT-BOOKED MOMENT—tells her he doesn’t want her to leave, before adding, “I hope you find what you’re looking for.” The theme song kicks right in as she chooses her own journey over him: “Feel the rain on your skin/No one else can feel it for you/Only you can let it in.”

In the initially broadcast version, someone subsequently yells “cut” and the camera suddenly pulls back to reveal that the whole scene was filmed on a Hollywood set, a bratty response on the part of producers to ongoing criticisms that the show was scripted and fake. (Viewers were rightly outraged.) In another version, Brody instead returns to an apartment—having seen off Kristen without the money shot of the fourth wall removal—and finds none other than Lauren awaiting him with a mischievous, and perhaps flirtatious, grin. So, take your pick: Woman chooses her own life over a man—psych! Or: Woman chooses her own life over a man, only to see her romantic competition (it is implied) finally win that man in the end.

In short, it was a whole lot of bullshit, that ending. The show, as an allegory for the cultural anxieties of the time, never fully panned out. But, 13 years later, the reboot has made up for it by undoing The Hills’ original premise. Which is to say: It’s finally showing the reached-for, so-close-you-can-almost-taste-it happily ever after—commitment and procreation—and it is often not so one-dimensionally happy.

“When you find the right one, ultimately, you gotta settle down.” Those are words that come out of Brody’s mouth in the first episode of New Beginnings. But then there he is, catching up over drinks with Frankie Delgado and Spencer, who often played the role of the original series’ villain, and responding to the question of: How’s married life? “You know, it has its ups and downs, like anybody would say. But, uh, yeah it’s good,” he says, unconvincingly. Spencer asks about these “downs” and Brody explains, “[It’s] just the normal, bickering… married couple that we’ve been doing forever,” he said. “Putting a ring on your finger, doesn’t all of a sudden, like, [mean] the relationship is totally different.”

In an on-camera interview—a format introduced in the reboot—he’s shown saying, with a laugh, “Do I miss my single days? Is this a trick question?” He laments having to “check in” with his wife. He misses the “absolute freedom aspect of being single.” He’s antagonistically resisting his wife Kaitlynn’s desire to have a kid. Soon we see some of the aforementioned bickering after Brody comes home later than expected. He then calls Kaitlynn, who expressed concern about his absence, “a psychopath” and “a nightmare.”

It must be emphasized: This was the leading man of The Hills. The sought-after romantic interest meant to make us feel tender things in the season finale. How immensely relatable: So much of my twenties were about elevating undeserving men to leading roles.

Justin Bobby—a fellow Peter Pan, the motorcycle-riding bad boy who memorably jerked Audrina around on The Hills—is also back for the reboot. The show makes a big deal of the potential for a rekindled romance with Audrina, but for viewers it is soon apparent—if not from earned life wisdom then at least from having eyeballs and ear drums—that he’s the same as always: playing hot and cold. One minute he’s making sex eyes at Audrina, while acknowledging, “Eventually, I’m going to want a wife and kids.” The next minute, he isn’t responding to her calls or texts. He makes plans for a second semi-date with Audrina, but immediately disappoints: “Apparently, in Justin’s world, ‘I’m gonna come steal you from your place,’ means ‘Hey, babe, get an Uber,’” Audrina says, wryly. When she tells a friend that he isn’t “consistent,” said friend replies with an appropriate corrective: “It’s rude. It’s rude.” We’re in our 30s now. No need to mince words.

New Beginnings undermines the broader, and often unspoken, context of the original show.

Best of all, we learn—because Justin Bobby mentions it multiple times—that after The Hills, he spent three years living in “a tree house” in Nicaragua, which is just about right. This shit isn’t cute anymore, buds.

It isn’t just that the men of The Hills prove, like the most satisfying of high school reunions, that they were not worth the drama and heartache. New Beginnings undermines the broader, and often unspoken, context of the original show. All that striving toward eventual marriage and babies, as though it represented the final terminus in a life, the point at which the “unwritten” is finally written, book finished. Now, Audrina is reckoning with things unfolding other than expected. “I never imagined I would ever be divorced and being a single mom at 33 with a little girl,” she tells the camera, choking up. “God, I never imagined that. It’s still hard to grasp.” She goes on to explain that her former husband “treated me like shit.”

It’s not at all that marriage is shown as uniformly hopeless in New Beginnings; it’s just that it’s shown, period. Heidi and Spencer, once declared the “most-hated couple in reality TV,” appear to have settled into a mutually comfortable domestic routine, with the latter declaring that he can’t wait to have more babies. Whitney’s husband hasn’t appeared on the show thus far, which seems the strongest possible endorsement for the health of a reality TV personality’s relationship. But in New Beginnings, marriage is no longer riding off into the sunset. It’s just marriage, which can be wonderful or shit, or any shade in between. To (regretfully) quote Brody, “Putting a ring on your finger doesn’t all of a sudden, like, [mean] the relationship is totally different.”

Motherhood turns out to be the same. Even as immensely privileged women of seemingly great means, the New Beginnings moms are often shown hinting at difficulties, like Audrina pointedly cheers-ing a “mom’s night out.” While some of the cast members meet up for a hike, there’s Whitney saying, “I’m lucky if I get to workout a couple times a week.” Later, she tells the camera: “There isn’t really a balance between working and motherhood.” Similarly, Heidi says during an interview, “I’m having a really hard time balancing having any kind of social life and being a mom… it’s emotionally draining.” Uh-huh.

New Beginnings breezily captures the bill of goods women are sold within patriarchy (the same bill of goods that contemporaries of the original series were warned they might miss out on if they didn’t get in step). It also captures the many pitfalls of the privileged, individualistic, pseudo-feminist pursuit of happiness or “empowerment.” Not that the show is even remotely an intentional feminist statement. After all, much of the reboot is structured around the hope of Audrina finding love once more, maybe even with Justin Bobby. Perhaps this time the fairytale will pan out, we’re meant to believe. There is no great paradigm shift here, no radical reimagining of what women might want or expect or put up with in a life. There is certainly no consideration of the state of things for women outside the Hollywood Hills bubble. There’s just the unromantic realness of people getting older, arriving at that “something in the distance” of the original theme song, and finding that it looks different up close.

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